“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves…”
Autumn is undoubtedly one of my favorite times of year. Temperatures are perfect for being outside and going on long hikes, and the colorful leaves make everything extra beautiful. During September and October, I try to be outside as much as humanly possible (I spent many hours painting in my backyard this September) to soak up the last bits of good weather before the snow hits. This year, Vince and I managed to pack in a lot of mini adventures over our weekends. Enough in fact, that I felt they warranted a post. Although I am far from the first person to wax poetic about my love affair with fall (which is a major contributor as to why I’ve never written about it before), this year was a unique one for me, so I hope you enjoy a recounting of some of it.
September: Climbing and Caving in Kentucky
Fall is (in my opinion) the best time of year for rock climbing in the south. Temperatures are still warm, but nowhere near the debilitating heat of the summer months, so we had to fit in one last trip to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. Normally I wouldn’t write about a climbing trip to the Red because we do them so often that it would get extremely repetitive, but on this trip we only climbed Saturday, and on Sunday we had an experience that was totally new for me.
The weekend started out extremely normally. We made the eight hour slog to Kentucky on Friday night, arrived around 2:00 am, set up camp, then got a few hours of sleep before waking up to get to the crag. We spent Saturday doing a mixture of sport and trad climbing with our friends Jordi, Anthea, Travis, and Meagan. I was excited to do some photography rigging as it had been months since I’d had the chance to photograph a climb from the top.
On Sunday however, we had a drastically different plan. Vince, Jordi, Anthea, and I parted ways with Travis and Meagan, and made an early drive to Mount Vernon where we had procured a permit to enter Pine Hill Cave via a 120 ft drop through a hole in its roof. Once inside, we would navigate out through a different entrance using a rough map. I had an odd mixture of feelings about the idea of caving. I’ve been on plenty of cave tours in the past, but they were all the kind where you have a guide leading you and a bunch of other tourists through a well-lit area of cave with a cement path built into it. While I’ve always enjoyed these tours, they have never been amongst my favorite activities. Something about being underground is unsettling to me, and I always feel at least a slight bit of relief the moment I step back into daylight. Jordi and Anthea on the other hand, go caving somewhat frequently, so they took the lead as we geared up to enter the cave.
Hiking up to the cave entrance, I felt an odd mixture of excitement and apprehension. We arrived at a hole in the ground that was covered with a metal grate to keep people from entering it. We had the key since we had a permit, so we opened the gate and set up a rope for rappelling down the 120 foot drop. By this point we were all armed with multiple layers of clothing (both for warmth, and for preventing the spread of white nose fungus), helmets, harnesses, laminated maps, and multiple headlamps. I also had my camera, a tripod, and a small backpack with water and snacks. As we stared down into the dark abyss we were about to enter, we reviewed our plan one last time.
One by one, we would rappel into the cave, then shed anything we didn’t want to carry (harnesses and my camera), and attach those items to the end of the rope so we could pull them up later. We would also leave an ascender at the base of the rope just in case we couldn’t find our way to other entrance. That way, we would be able to escape by going back up the rope, which wouldn’t be ideal, but would definitely be preferable to being trapped in a cave.
Vince went first, which I thought was very brave considering there was no way to really tell what we’d be lowering in to. It felt like it took ages before we finally saw the rope go slack, which meant he had reached the bottom and detached himself from it. I called down to make sure he was clear of the rope, then heard an extremely muffled yell of assent. That meant it was my turn.
I took a few calming breaths as I set up my rappel and lowered into the hole. Saying a very final-feeling goodbye to Jordi and Anthea, I stepped backward and was soon shrouded in darkness, the only light coming from my dim headlamp, and the opening above that was growing smaller by the second as I moved away from it. Normally I absolutely love rappelling, but I have to admit this felt much more frightening than usual. There was no way to tell how far I was from the bottom or how long it might take me to get there. Hanging from a single strand of rope in near total darkness, I felt extremely and unnervingly alone. On the one hand, everything I could see in the beam of my headlamp looked fascinating. On the other other hand, my heart was racing with the uncertainty of everything we were doing.
It was a relief to finally reach the cave floor and join back up with Vince. I instantly felt more comfortable, and I set up my camera to take some shots of the incredible chamber we had landed in.
By the time Jordi and Anthea had joined us I was set up, and we used Jordi’s headlamp (which is so powerful it’s basically as good as sunlight) to illuminate the inside of the dome. After gaping at the cave entrance in a dizzying disbelief that we’d actually rappelled down from the top of it, my focus shifted to a nearby pool of water. Someone had already found cave creatures and we all huddled around to take a look.
I was shocked at how much we saw when we looked closely at the walls and floor of the cave. The walls were covered in cave crickets, a harmless yet somewhat unnerving insect.
We also found frogs, pure white crawdads, and a salamander, and this was all before we’d even really started our exploration.
We were ahead of our approximate schedule because the rappel had gone smoothly, so we took some time to watch all of the little animals before setting out in search of the main entrance. Anthea disappeared down a nearby passageway for a few minutes and when she returned she said that it might be a potential short-cut to get to entrance. We attached our extra stuff to the end of the rope, and followed her into the tunnel, which required a lot of army crawling and squeezing through tight spaces. Eventually the tunnel dead-ended in a pit of water so we turned around and retraced our path into the dome to try another direction.
For the next few hours, we crawled on our bellies, hopped over obstacles, and traversed over waterfalls exploring the cave. Eventually, we followed an underground river until we could feel the air become more humid and earthy. We had made it to the walk-in entrance we were looking for. Caving had been a completely new experience for me, and I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. Every turn had brought on a new puzzle and finding our way through the cave made me feel like a real explorer venturing into the unknown.
October: Kensington Metropark
Vince and I took a day trip to the east side of Michigan in early October. Our destination was Kensington Metropark, a place I had been wanting to visit for a couple of years. I wouldn’t dare call myself a legitimate bird-watcher, but I have dabbled in it for a while now and practically every time I go out birding, I meet someone who recommends Kensington Metropark for its friendly sandhill cranes. So we armed ourselves with a bag of bird seed and my entire camera kit and set off.
Before we even parked our car, we saw cranes stalking through the lot, utterly ambivalent to the traffic of the extremely popular park. Naturally, I was practically jumping up and down in excitement, and I was out of the car as soon as it stopped moving. The pair of cranes was still in the area and we approached them with caution, but quickly realized they weren’t concerned by us at all. This gave me and opportunity to photograph them with my 50mm portrait lens instead of a large telephoto lens and I loved the results.
We spent some time with the cranes, but eventually moved on to start an easy hike along a boardwalk where we saw many of the typical wetland birds like Canada Geese and Red-winged Blackbirds. Some colorful Cardinals also fluttered around, drawn in by piles of bird seed that had been left on the walkway’s railings, but the best was yet to come.
As we entered a forested area we began to notice chipmunks darting about in every direction, and more birds fluttering in the trees. We came across some benches and sat down, filling our hands with bird seed. Within moments, a chickadee and a tufted titmouse were fluttering around my hand, landing for split seconds at a time to grab some seeds before disappearing back into the trees.
Nearby, a chipmunk stuffed its face to capacity.
Vince and I let this go on for a long time, laughing every time a bird landed in one of our hands because their little feet tickled. When we eventually resumed our hike, I was grinning uncontrollably.
We made one more stop because I saw a tree that I wanted to photograph. As I was changing out my lenses, a nuthatch flew up to Vince and hovered near him expectantly. This started another round of feeding, and I captured some photos of the nuthatch on the tree I that I liked so much.
So Kensington Metropark was indeed the birders paradise that people had been describing to me, and I will definitely be returning in the future.
October: Sandhill Crane Migration in Bellevue
Later in October, Vince and I once again went out in search of Sandhill Cranes, this time slightly closer to home. There is a lake in Bellevue, MI that is the perfect spot for migrating cranes to roost overnight. During the months of October and November hundreds to a couple thousand cranes will fly into the lake at dusk and use its waters to keep them safe from would-be predators like coyotes.
This was quite the spectacle to witness, especially when coupled with the loud, raking calls of so many cranes at once. This is another place that I plan to return to in the future because the migration is such a unique and beautiful event.
October: New River Gorge National River
In late October, Vince and I joined our friend Travis on a climbing trip to the New River Gorge in West Virginia. This is a little farther away than the Red River Gorge, so after a long drive, we pulled up to our campsite around four in the morning and set up as quickly as possible. We slept in until eight and then begrudgingly awoke to get ready for a day of hiking and climbing. Luckily our campground had a herd of friendly goats that we could pet, which made being awake much less painful.
After a quick breakfast, we set our for the crag, but before we got to climbing we hiked downhill to see the New River. Along the way we passed many remnants of the coal mining industry that used to operate out of the area.
It was a hot day, so Vince and Travis took a swim in the river before we climbed up an excruciating set of steps to get back to the crag. We spent the rest of the day climbing on rock that proved to be much more difficult than I am used to. My ego took a bit of a hit, but it was fun nonetheless. We climbed until dark and then got back to town and filled up on pizza before crashing early.
The next morning the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It had been raining since early morning, which meant that the cliffs would be too wet to climb. This didn’t deter us from having fun though. We stopped by one of the Gorge’s visitor centers to pick up some information about the park, and pieced together a plan based on a park map and some random points of interest I had stored away in the recesses of my mind from a time I had researched the park years ago.
We decided to drive south, stopping first at a scenic overlook called Grand View. This spot gave us a beautiful unobstructed view of the New River snaking through the gorge, where fog rolled over the hills dramatically.
Next we followed some dubious-at-best GPS directions which led us down what we thought couldn’t possibly be the right road to get to Sandstone Falls. After forty minutes of narrow, dirt road switchbacks, we finally found the parking lot for the falls. A short walk along a boardwalk brought us to a viewing area where we found a lovely set of waterfalls.
We immediately veered off the boardwalk, and waded into the river to explore it. Although the river bottom was intermittently mucky and slimy, we waded in the surprisingly warm water for a couple of hours, exploring the area and finding lots of beaver scat and of course more waterfalls.
Eventually the rain let up, and we drove back up to the north section of the gorge where we visited the iconic suspension bridge that is open for parachuters to jump from one day a year.
We also followed another little river upstream and found some really picturesque waterfalls.
The next morning the weather was good again, and we woke up early to get to the crag before anyone else. We got to climb two routes before it was time for us to pack up and head back to Michigan.
November: Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore
By November, temperatures in Michigan were dropping fast. My brother, David, and I decided to go up north to go rock hunting before Lake Michigan inevitably became engulfed in ice and snow. We drove up to Leland, Michigan, where we planned to search for Petoskey Stones and Leland Blues. Petoskey Stones are the state stone of Michigan, and are actually made of fossilized coral from an ancient coral reef. Leland Blue Stones are actually iron ore slag that was dumped into the bay from a smelting plant that used to operate near Leland. So neither of our desired “stones” were really stones, but we were excited nonetheless.
We arrived in Leland in the late morning and bundled up in hats, gloves, and clunky waders before tromping down to the beach which was bitterly cold that morning. We were armed with plastic strainers to sift through rocks, and bags to carry any we wanted to keep. I felt about as Michigany as I ever had dressed in waders and a floppy hat, and braving the cold to hunt for our state stone.
David and I don’t mess around when it comes to rock hunting. We stayed out on the beach for hours, plucking stones from the freezing waves that washed over our feet until my hands were so numb I couldn’t feel them anymore and I had forgotten to care about the steady streams of snot issuing from my nose. I finally had to call it when my hands had turned an alarming shade of crimson and had lost eighty percent of their dexterity. We walked away with a modest collection, well within the legal limits for rock harvesting, and I was especially excited about having found some excellent Leland Blues (my first ones ever).
Since we were so close to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, we decided to drive its scenic road, and we stopped at the various overlooks along the way where enjoyed views of the dunes while shivering profusely.
By mid-November Autumn was quickly giving way to winter. This is sure to bring its own set of adventures, especially once we get some real snow. I’m currently looking forward to a couple of smaller trips we have planned for the beginning of winter, and hopefully an international trip near the end of it! But for now, I’m quite enjoying writing this from under a warm blanket with a cup of tea and a purring cat.
Here are a few clips from some of our short trips this fall!